Speakers in this week’s Commons debate on the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill did not pull their punches. The bill was described as “flawed”, “rushed”, “a dog’s breakfast”, and even as one of the worst in history.
It has had plenty of competition, even this year. A 2013 parliamentary report noted that “part or all of 77 Acts from 15 departments, which were passed in the 2005-10 Parliament, have not been brought into force,” which casts some serious doubt on the general quality of legislation today.
But was there ever a golden age for parliamentary legislation? These examples of “bad laws” dating from the late 17th century onwards suggest not. They include acts passed without the knowledge of the government of the day, “sensible” measures never enforced, dodgy methods of raising taxation, and assaults on civil liberties.
The Window Tax, 1696
The tax was introduced to raise money for the Crown as a result of the widespread practice of “clipping” coins (chipping pieces of metal off to resell). The aim was to avoid an income tax but the tax on windows was equally unpopular.
People in larger houses began bricking up windows to take them below the threshold for paying tax. New houses were built with fewer windows leading the levy to be known as a tax on “light and air”. The notoriously unpopular legislation was repealed in 1851.
The Corn Laws, 1815
The Corn Laws originated at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. They were designed to keep the price of corn artificially high to preserve the abnormally large profits that farmers had received during the wars.
So unpopular was the measure that parliament had to be protected by soldiers during the debates on the bill. The repeal of the legislation in 1846 led by prime minister Robert Peel resulted in a split in the Tory party which kept them out of office for most of the next 30 years.
Repeal of the Combination Acts, 1824
The Combination Acts had been passed in 1799 and 1800 during the French wars. This draconian legislation prevented the formation of societies or groups of people for the purpose of political reform. Interference with trade and commerce was also illegal.
In the 1820s, the radical MPs, Francis Place and Joseph Hume, established a Select Committee of Inquiry into the Acts under the chairmanship of William Huskisson.
The Acts were repealed in 1824 seemingly without the knowledge of the prime minister, Lord Liverpool. In 1825, he introduced a new Conspiracy Bill arguing that, “the measure arose almost entirely out of the Bill of last session, which had been hastily passed. He had not been aware of its extent, and did not, until it came into operation, know its provisions…” In his memoirs, Francis Place noted that the lack of debate on the legislation had been deliberate:
I was quite certain that if the bills came under discussion in the House they would be lost. Mr Hume had the good sense to see this, and wholly to refrain from speaking on them… they passed the House of Commons almost without the notice of members within or newspapers without.
Although trade unions were no longer illegal, their members remained subject to many restrictions.
Easter Act, 1928
The Easter Act is one of the many pieces of legislation on the statute book that has never been implemented. The Act determined a fixed date for Easter Sunday between April 9 and 15 each year. It passed through the Lords and Commons without opposition from the church.
However, in order for this seemingly sensible measure to be enforced a Commencement Order must be issued by the government of the day. Although this has been discussed in parliament from time to time, ministers have not been brave enough to enforce the bill.
Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy Act), 1998
The Omagh bombings, which claimed the lives of 29 people, caused widespread horror and revulsion. The government was determined to respond decisively and passed the Terrorism and Conspiracy Act in a matter of hours. Parliament was recalled for a special sitting and normal standards of parliamentary scrutiny were bypassed. The Act extended emergency powers which had hitherto been temporary and severely restricted liberties and human rights. It diluted the standards of criminal evidence and brought an unprecedented number of groups within its remit. It was replaced in 2000 by the Terrorism Act.
Identity Cards Act, 2006
The introduction of ID cards to the UK has had a long and fraught history. The carrying of identification documents being viewed as contrary to the rights of the freeborn Englishman. However, in 2006, the Labour government passed legislation to establish a National Identity Register which could hold 50 categories of information on each citizen. The accompanying ID cards would eventually replace passports for every citizen.
There was tremendous suspicion and opposition to the Act and, in particular, the national database. In January 2011 the Coalition government repealed the legislation and all existing ID cards were scrapped without refunds to the purchasers. Thus the experiment in compulsory identification documents lasted less than five years.
There are, of course, many more examples that could have been cited demonstrating that the current measure to regulate lobbying is part of a rich pedigree of “bodged bills”.